My Favourite Game of 2017 ~ The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

This game is incredible. As far as I’m concerned, it deserves every bit of praise it’s gotten. It was risky to uphaul the Zelda formula and translate it to an open-world setting, but Eiji Aonuma, Hidemaro Fujibayashi and their team managed not only that, but they also ‘fixed’ some of the problems with open-world games in general.

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BotW impressed me just as much as Link tried to impress Prince Sidon here.

You know that open-world game where you climb a big tower to unlock a section of the map flooded with quest markers, then a million icons show up on the UI? Yes, that one! Well, BotW takes a slightly different approach – you only have 1-4 quest markers on your map at any one time, all pertaining to the same active quest, and you don’t get inundated with extra markers telling you where to initiate side quests, nor do you get told where any shrine is in the game by activating some magic “gimme all the locations” button, as if climbing a Shiekah Tower would give Link magical knowledge of which characters in the vicinity require assistance.

Instead, you garner information in a natural way – Link whips out his binoculars and searches for shrines and other points of interest by eye, which is best done from the top of the tower. Each and every Shiekah Tower is positioned such that it’s visible from another tower, and there’s never any imposing notification on-screen broadcasting the position of the next one – you go to whichever one you want, or to none at all. It’s seamlessly organic. The visual diarrhoea that clutters other games is wiped away here and it’s so refreshing. The most prominent markers on your map will be the ones you place yourself, and they’re only visible in the real world when looking through the scope.

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Twink Link riding a bear.

The soundtrack also contrasts itself with other Zelda soundtracks by forgoing the bombastic Hyrule Field themes found in earlier titles and replacing them with relative silence. Standing in the middle of Hyrule Field in the world of Breath of the Wild, your ears fill with the sound of wind rustling through the grass with the occasional soft piano. That or an aggressive piano riff coupled with angry Guardian laser beams, anyway. Games have historically conditioned us to expect music to play at all times, but the audio design of BotW rejects that idea and the relative lack of music reinforces the vastness of the world far better than any of Manaka Kataoka’s fantastically quiet tunes ever could. I want to state it outright: Breath of the Wild has the best audio design of any Zelda game, maybe any game I’ve ever played. From this point on, I want games to embrace silence where appropriate. This isn’t to say the game is completely silent – there’s still combat music, there are still joyful tunes coming out of towns and there are nods everywhere to Zelda’s unmatched musical legacy when you ride a horse, when you approach a stable or even in Hyrule Castle itself.

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A completely innocent transaction.

The weapon system is controversial, to say the least. I see the merits of both sides of the argument, but ultimately I think I like it more than I see flaws in it. While I think durabilities of weapons could be just a little bit longer, and there ought to be a more granular way of seeing how long your weapon has left besides “it is brand new” and “it is about to vapourise in your hands”, I also commend it for encouraging you to try out new things. It’s still odd that a game that spends all its time saying “yes” to the player’s every idea then takes weapons away from you so quickly, but I feel like you’d be playing this game wrong somehow if you didn’t explore the unparalleled depth of the combat mechanics. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of ways you can take down an enemy:

  • Hit them at close range with with a sword, spear or club;
  • Shoot them from afar with a bow;
  • Flurry Rush;
  • Critical hit on their weak point;
  • Airborne attack with a bomb, or bullet time with your bow;
  • Percussive force delivered by horse;
  • A motorcycle to the face;
  • Picking up a Stal-enemy’s head and kicking it into water like a football;
  • Using Stasis on a boulder and flinging it at them;
  • Freezing them with Ice Arrows, Ice Chu Jelly or a Frost weapon and then using a Korok Leaf to blow them off a cliff;
  • Using Magnesis to slam a 10ft metal door in their face;
  • Using a humble pot lid to reflect a beam of pure angry laser energy back at them;
  • Throwing a Cuckoo near them while they are taking a swing so they invoke the wrath of the feathered beasts;
  • Tying Octo Balloons to a raft, then using a Korok Leaf to blow it over an enemy camp, leaping off it and slamming your weapon into the ground to make a deadly shockwave that was so badass, it also killed you;
  • Taking them by surprise with a boomerang backswing;
  • Even better than just a boomerang – catching one in midair and using it to cut up enemies like a supercharged blender;
  • Slapstick comedy, courtesy of the Spring-Loaded Hammer;
  • Waiting for the correct moment in a thunderstorm and throwing anything made of metal at them – guaranteed to shock;
  • Literally tearing their skeletal arm off and playing the old lighthearted playground game, “Stop Hitting Yourself”;
  • Pinpoint deforestation;
  • BEES!
  • Cliché videogame explosive barrels;
  • Turf war

The point here is that Breath of the Wild‘s combat system requires creativity and invention to get the most out of what it offers. And boy does it offer a lot. I’ve heard that, at points during development, the entire dev team put down their tools and just played the game, and I’m willing to wager this is where the emergent behaviour of the combat system stems from.

I might also have added some kind of forging mechanic, in the same vein as the cooking system. I loved cooking and I feel like forging your weapons using the gemstones you find throughout the game for repair purposes, or even to decorate your favourite weapon, could have worked.

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I can hear the cooking jingle in my head right now.

On the subject of cooking, it’s one of the most novel crafting systems I’ve seen. You just throw a bunch of things in a pot and hope it pans out. I often tested new combinations to see what stuck and worked everything out for myself – better grades of meat give you more health back, adding honey makes lots of meals better and sticking a bunch of ingredients with the same buff strengthens that buff. Adding two different types of buff cancels them both out, so you need to carefully consider each addition to the recipe. You’re punished with Dubious Food if your ingredients make no sense. The system gives the player a lot of freedom in trying out new combinations, which fits with the game’s theme of saying “yes” to the player as much as possible.

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You’ll be a big fan of the anxiety-inducing piano riff by the end. I call it Hyrule Syndrome.

If you’ve not played this game yet, discard the idea that the game has dungeons all together. Well, almost. It’s far better if you assume it has none and treat the four Divine Beasts as intricate, oversized Shrines as opposed to small dungeons. That way, you’ll be less disappointed. Not that I think the Divine Beasts are bad at all! Their approach to dungeon puzzle design hinges on a different core mechanic based on the movement of the Beast, a concept I really hope gets spun out, expanded and refined in the next Zelda game. On top of this, the shrines make fantastic use of Link’s Shiekah Slate runes, the replacement of key items. From the time you leave the Plateau, Link has every key ability he needs to do every single Divine Beast and every shrine.

My favourite Shrine, or rather, my favourite Shrine Quest, is Eventide Island, as many veterans of the game will proclaim. This quest strips Link, quite literally, of all his hard-earned gear and tasks him with collecting three orbs hidden around a remote island, which acts as a vertical slice of the whole game. Presuming that you’ve made quite a bit of progress in the game to get here, as you’ll need a lot of stamina to fly all the way, it’s refreshing to return to basics and experience everything you felt in the first couple hours of the game on the Great Plateau. You’ll scavenge weapons and dodge enemy attacks out of necessity, as your defence is near-zero, and you’ll have to find a way to distract a dumbfounded Hinox long enough to sneak away the orb it’s guarding. It’s a welcome breather that reinforces all that you learned at the very beginning.

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Twink Link tries his best to sway an unsuspecting young man, and fails.

Now allow me to make a complete 180 on what I just said: Hyrule Castle. Oh my god. So many entrances, so many paths, so many secrets and so much of it is optional, but the whole thing is a treat. It was my favourite area of the entire damn game! The imposing music track blends together Ganondorf’s leitmotif with Zelda’s Lullaby and a healthy dose of the Zelda Overworld Theme, but with a marching beat and a strange 5/4 time signature that dips into 6/4 for some parts. Rarely does a theme set the mood so brilliantly as this one does. There are a couple terrifying moments where you get trapped in a room with a Lynel and your only escape is beating it to death; I used a lot of arrows in these sections. When you do finally reach the top, you’re met with this dude:

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I love Calamity Ganon’s spidery, scorpion-y design.

On top of the base game, there’s the Expansion Pass DLC pack. There’s a few goodies in here – a bunch of nostalgic gear, a real neat map extension that tracks your ENTIRE journey and an extra difficulty – but the main two things are the Master Trials and the bonus Divine Beast. I’m too bad at the game so I’ve not got round to actually finishing the Master Trials, but your reward is changing the Master Sword from foam to actual metal. However, the DLC Divine Beast and the amazing boss fight that follows was great fun; I think it’s best played through when you’ve already finished the game and put it down for a couple months, as the second DLC content feels like a victory lap around some of the game’s best aspects.

This is a game where you can ignore the four Divine Beasts and 116 of the shrines and just go and punch Ganon in the face, if you’re not catapulted out of Hyrule Castle by a volley of Guardian lasers in the process. You can glide off the Great Plateau and start the bulk of your adventure in any direction. Moblins will pick up their fellow Bokoblins and throw them at you in the absence of other weaponry and a lightning bolt will down the toughest foe, so launching your weapon into an enemy camp just before a thunder strike is a viable tactic. These are all things that surprised me when I first saw them in game. Rarely has a Nintendo game handed so much freedom to the player; it trusts that you’ll be able to navigate the treacherous path ahead, even if you’ll see the game over screen several times. After all, the narrative of the game is about Link overcoming challenges and preparing for the final fight against Ganon.

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A friend who is supportive of Twink Link’s choices.

One of the criticisms levelled at the game is that “it’s empty”. I fully disagree. What Nintendo didn’t do here was whip out the terrain-making software, add a few hills and crevices and them throw down Videogame House Model #2, Videogame NPC #17 etc. They made a world. Look deeply into the game’s locales and get lost in the forests, the lakes, the mountains, the volcano, the wilderness. There’s a section that’s permanently subject to thunderstorms. Did there need to be? Does it serve a purpose? Are there any NPCs there? No. But it’s there! And it’s there because it’s interesting that it’s there – areas like that add flavour and make this world feel like a real, varied landscape. Knowing that no two hills in the game look exactly alike, coupled with the sheer size of the overworld, just blows me away. Finishing all of the game’s main and side quests ensure that you get a look at a decent chunk of the world. And getting all 900 Korok seeds makes you touch every pixel of the Hyrulean landmass.

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Twink Link bringing some spice to an ailing honeymoon.

I didn’t intend to write overtwo thousand words about Zelda, but as I thought about how to sum up this game in a paragraph, I realised I couldn’t. A game this vast needs space to breathe and I couldn’t possibly capture my thoughts in such a small space. The first week I played this game filled me with a child-like glee that no game has done in years, and if anything, it’s filled me with hope for gaming’s future. We need more games like this, where the designers throw out the established playbook and go back to basics. THIS is how you reinvent a franchise.

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This game is almost as majectic as THIS beast.

Most importantly, as you might have guessed by now, I’m a big fan of the wardrobe they gave Link. Also, Link can fight Ganon in his boxers, so it’s automatic game of the decade.

Verdict: Fuck me, it might be my favourite game ever.

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